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Why democracy-hungry new generation is disappointed with some Octobrists

Written by World Events

The young generation of activists are imbibing the spirit of the October 1973 student uprising to take up the torch in the struggle for democracy. But they are also disappointed by some of the senior activists who managed to capture power after the May 14 election, forsaking the principles they had fought for.

Imprisoned activist Sophon Surariddhidhamrong said the student uprising to oust the authoritarian regime under Marshal Thanom Kittikhachorn half a century ago was a reminder that sovereign power belongs to the public, and that the representatives of the people must be elected to power by the masses.

The student uprising of October 14, 1973 demanded a constitution and a general election to replace the military-backed regime.

“As the people in power were not the people’s representatives, it’s the basic right of the people to oust them. It would be abnormal if people support a coup to seize power,” Sophon, a radiological technology student at Navamindradhiraj University, wrote in a letter sent from a Bangkok prison to his associates.

The student uprising 50 years ago might have faced heavy losses in terms of lives lost during the bloody protest, but it achieved the goal of toppling an autocratic regime and, more importantly, empowering the people, he said.

“The October uprising made the people more self-confident, feel empowered and have strong faith in democracy,” he said in the letter which Thai PBS World accessed with his permission.

Sophon, widely known as Get, was sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment on August 25 for violating Article 112 of the Penal Code, or lese majeste, for his activities in April 2022 at Wongwien Yai circle questioning the death of King Taksin.

A high-school student, who wanted to be known only as “Phatsara”, said the October uprising challenged not only autocracy but also old values and the status quo in this hierarchical society. Students then challenged SOTUS — seniority, order, tradition, unity and spirit — dominating lives on campuses decades earlier, she said.

From her own study, students even at high school level like herself paid more attention to a wide range of social issues. They got closer to people in lower classes like farmers in rural areas and urban workers, Phatsara said, and added that they were neo-leftists against war (in Indochina).

Shedding blood for rights

Pitchsinee Chaitaweetham, a 26-year-old social worker, does not consider the October 1973 event as a victory of the student movement, but says it marked a turning point in the history of Thailand as it opened Thai people’s eyes to freedom and basic rights.

From that point, Thai people have struggled and passed through many bloodshed incidents to achieve the ultimate goal of democracy.

“The October 14 protest gave us the freedom to speak out and in our time we, the youth protesters, in 2020 elevated the struggle to a call for equality,” Pitchsinee told Thai PBS World in a phone interview, referring to the demand made by students and youths in a protest on August 2020 for reform of the royal institution.

“Now we are calling for equality, for the people to be on an equal footing with the elite. And that’s the reason why we are calling for an end to the draconian Article 112,” she said.

Slow march towards democracy

Towards that goal, Thai people have endured a lot of bloodshed incidents over the past half a century — the massacre in Thammasat University on October 6, 1979, Bloody May 1992, and the red shirt protests in 2010 — she said.

Like Phatsara, Pitchsinee believes all the major historical events since the 1932 revolution, which transformed Thailand from an absolute to constitutional monarchy, until the present time, have contributed to the democratization of Thailand.

“The 1932 revolution was something like a big bang, the October 1973 protests and many other incidents after that like major explosions to pave the path to our ultimate goal,” she said.

A student activist from Thammasat University said different political protests in history had resulted in different outcomes depending on the situation, circumstances, and more importantly the reaction of the establishment elite who were sitting on the top of the pyramid.

“We got bureaucratic polity after the 1932 revolution, the royals granted democracy after October 1973, quasi-democracy after the October 6 massacre, three coups after brief civilian governments in early 21st century. The establishment elite was able to consolidate its power every time in the aftermath, so the people of my generation have to keep fighting,” said the student in an interview.

The political science student, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being prosecuted on lese majeste charges, said the new generation activists know a lot about the role of the establishment elite in intervening and manipulating politics, therefore they needed to speak out to achieve authentic democratization.

Fallen Octobrists

Phatsara, Pitchsinee and the Thammasat student said they admired the October uprising and the then student activists who protested against the dictator, Thanom, and managed to oust the authoritarian regime in the 1970s. But they do not expect the senior Octobrists to be able to maintain their spirit to continue fighting for the people while they are in power.

Many of the activists of the October uprising generation joined the communist insurgency to extend their political struggle in the late 1970s and returned home after the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in early 1980s. Some of them entered politics and managed to rise to political power under the leadership of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They are, however, being accused of forsaking the democratic spirit and playing a political game merely to form a government after the May 14 general election this year. Key members of the Pheu Thai Party, former student activists who took part in the October 1973 uprising, such as Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai and PM’s secretary Prommin Lertsuridej, allegedly cut a deal with military proxies to form a government for the sake of Thaksin’s return from exile.

“In my view, they are like heartbroken people who are devoted to Thaksin,” high-school student Phatsara said, adding, “They might believe they are united against the capitalists to fight against the dictator, I don’t know. But it doesn’t work for democracy.

Why new generation wants Article 112 scrapped

“I admire what they did in the past during their era, but we cannot rely on these people anymore. They don’t understand what the new generation wants and they don’t get why we want Article 112 scrapped. What’s the point of them joining the communist movement in the jungle if they don’t want equality for the people?” said Pitchsinee.

“If they know a little bit about equality, they should not defend such a draconian law to give privilege to the head of state,” she said. “A normal law on defamation is enough to protect all people in the country equally.”

“They demeaned us when they joined hands with military proxies to form a government to overcome conflicts,” said the Thammasat student, “They did not respect the people at all.”

The student activist did not expect the former senior activists in the government to push for further democratization. They would not support an amnesty bill to free many young activists who were being prosecuted and detained under the lese majeste law, he said. “Needless to say, they wouldn’t push necessary reform in many institutions which are obstructing democratization.”

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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